Stan Lee, legendary comic writer and co-creator of iconic Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, is a spry 94 years old, and he’s still trying to outdo himself career-wise. (Sadly, Lee’s wife, Joan, passed away July 6 at the age of 93.) He arrives to work every day at the Los Angeles offices of POW! Entertainment, where he continues to generate ideas for cutting-edge films and television projects, including the popular U.K. sci-fi crime series “Stan Lee’s Lucky Man,” starring James Nesbitt and Eve Best.
“I might come up with a new character who is more popular than the ones I’ve already done, or I might want to come up with a whole new kind of entertainment,” says Lee, whose hand and footprints will be captured in cement in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre on July 18. It is an event paid for and sponsored by the fan-funded media company Legion M. “The big thing is to keep working and keep trying to create, and hope you come up with something good.”
For Lee, that something good has manifested itself into a canon of groundbreaking comic heroes. Starting in the 1960s in New York — together with artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby — Lee created revolutionary three-dimensional characters. These were figures carved from the real world, with relatable flaws and problems to which any fan — kids and adults — could relate. From Peter Parker’s insecurities or Dr. Stephen Strange’s arrogance, these superheroes were far from perfect, each with an Achilles’ heel that made him vulnerable when he least expected it. They may have been larger than life — they could scale walls and fly across the sky — but they resonated with audiences on a deeply personal level.
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This humanistic approach to superhero protagonists changed the trajectory of the comic book industry and turned Lee, himself, into a cult hero — a bonafide champion of the underdog in all of us. (Lee claims to have ruined his eyesight reading all the impassioned typewritten letters sent to him from fans over the decades.)
“The super[hero] angle is the thing that’s fiction, but I tried to make everything else as realistic as possible,” Lee says of his approach. “I try to think that if I had a superpower, what would my life be like?”
So ubiquitous in their popularity, Lee’s Marvel superheroes became to the modern world what mythological gods were to ancient cultures. Where there was once Apollo, there was now Captain America. These characters have never fallen out of favor.
While many film studios have struggled to get audiences interested in film versions of such once-iconic characters as King Arthur or the Lone Ranger, nearly every Marvel film rakes in big bucks at the box office. The rare misses, including the 2015 version of “Fantastic Four,” usually fail for straying too far from their creators’ core ideas. Conversely, the latest “Spider-Man” casts Peter Parker as a high school student, which is a return to Lee’s original intent.
“I think when it comes down to it, it’s the relatable nature of all of the heroes that makes them resonate [with people],” says Lee.
“They were not gods come down from the heavens,” adds Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “We recognize ourselves in them, and in their struggle to do what’s right.”
In 1972, having definitely altered the landscape of comic books, Lee took a break from writing and became Marvel’s publisher. In 1981 he moved to Los Angeles to develop Marvel’s TV and movie properties. Then, in 2000, Lee partnered with Gill Champion, POW! president and a producer who worked on Daniel Petrie’s 1981 crime drama “Fort Apache, the Bronx.”
“Although he remains chairman emeritus at Marvel, he was allowed to go out and compete, in a sense against himself, and create for the next generation of fans of superhero stories,” says Champion.
The way things work today, Lee delivers “a germ of the idea” to the team of POW! team writers, who then shepherd these ideas for further development. In addition to “Lucky Man,” which Champion says will be headed for American screens soon, POW! has produced the Syfy reality TV series “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” and the graphic novel series “The Zodiac Legacy,” which Lee co-created with writer Stuart Moore. The company is also developing an anime series called “The Reflection.”
Per Champion, Lee kicks off every ideas meeting stressing “story, story, story and character, character, character.”
“His sense of visuals is still as strong as ever,” he says.
Same goes for Lee’s popularity; he can’t walk down the street without someone asking for his autograph. (On Aug. 22, a tribute event for fans named “Extraordinary: Stan Lee” will take place at L.A.’s Saban Theater.)
“He’s always there to sign an autograph, and now that everybody has their own camera, to take a selfie,” Champion says. “I don’t think there are many celebrities who would share that kind of experience with the fans.”
On the cusp of turning 95, Lee has no plans to slow down. On June 30, he delivered the keynote commencement speech at the University of California Los Angeles Extension, urging recent graduates to “enjoy your work, because you spend your entire life working.” Retirement, Lee strongly believes, “is a dirty word.”
“I love what I do,” says Lee. “If I had to do anything else, I’d be miserable. If I weren’t coming into the office and working with the people here, I would be sitting at home, watching television.”
To that end, Lee is now shooting four cameos for a quartet of movies. He makes a cameo appearance in every Marvel film, but “Thor,” he says, was his favorite.
“It’s the only cameo that I’ve done that was two scenes. Now I’m hoping they’ll give me three scenes. Before you know it, I’ll be one of the actors in the movie.”